San Francisco is seven miles by seven miles wide—a postage stamp-sized patch of land that, despite its modest dimensions, can feel impossibly vast on a bicycle thanks to its innumerable hills, circuitous routes and congested tangle of cars, tourists and MUNI tracks. Nevertheless, there are countless reasons why SF is a great city for cycling, and we're proud of the thousands of cyclists, from the recreational to the die-hard, who make San Francisco's bike culture one of the best in the United States.
San Francisco Hill
In designing our incarnation of the ultimate modern utility bike, we were inspired by the "go anywhere, do anything" attitude of the Bay Area's cyclists who tackle staggering hills, haul massive vegetable loads from our prized farmers markets, sell us tasty food and drinks from their bikes-turned-food-carts, brighten our commutes with music blasted from massive speakers towed by their bikes and generally refuse any limitation to what can be accomplished while perched on the back of a bicycle. Faced with the impossibility of parking a car in San Francisco, our city's diminutive physical size, and the relatively fantastic weather we enjoy year round, we came around to a vision of a bike that could be a modern urban workhorse, rendering the car unnecessary, even "ridiculous" (to borrow a term from Malma, Sweden), for most any task within our city's limits.
Inspiration came from two unlikely sources: from a trip through Europe, Adam Reineck brought back images of vintage Swedish "trade" bikes that, despite their weight and antiquity, excited us with their uncompromising practicality. Here was a bike that could haul 150 pounds... while also being fun to ride. How often do you need to transport 150 pounds of stuff? It's a good question (that we hotly debated ourselves), but if a bike is meant to be a meaningful replacement for your car, then carrying more than just your briefcase is sure to be a necessity.
Meanwhile, from the far corners of the Interbike trade show, from the cheesy tourist tours over the Golden Gate Bridge and from the spirited debates on tech forums in esoteric corners of the internet, electric bicycles consistently and emphatically captured our attention.
Low-cost, high-efficiency hub motors and advanced new battery technologies borrowed from the electric vehicle industry offer exciting new possibilities to electrify bicycles with a minimum of compromise on weight and handling. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the majority of e-bikes—certainly almost all of those commercially available—are painfully heavy, over-instrumented, poorly spec'ed designs that fall short of the performance of a motorcycle, while wringing the fun out of riding a bike.
We believe that in the marriage of the vintage trade bike and the "modern" electric bike lays a harmony that captures the best possibilities of each architecture in a design ideally suited to the diverse needs of the San Francisco—or Portland—rider. From those two inspirational starting points, our team has decided on a vision for our bike that we're extremely excited about... and we'll share it here:
If we had to pick a single inspirational starting point for our bike's design, it might be this elegant vintage cargo bike that Adam stumbled upon in Sweden. The former postal bike captured us with the graceful curves of its front frame-mounted rack—not to mention the massive wooden box strapped to it. This is a bike that maintains the familiar wheelbase and geometry of a city touring bike, but adds in serious load carrying capability. With the fold-down front stand, it's totally conceivable that you could ride this bike to the place you work... or turn it into the place you work, selling anything from bacon-wrapped hot dogs to homemade ice cream from its massive front platform. That massive front platform becomes a liability, unfortunately, on days that you're hauling nothing but yourself and a bike lock rather than bags of concrete.
Different riders have different visions of what 'cargo' means, and our team had a pretty intense debate over just how much storage was too much. The result is that we're tackling the storage problem through a modular design for the rack which allows different front attachments to be quickly and securely attached—a load-carrying platform, minimalist front rack, panniers... a baby (or best friend) seat, even? As a bonus, this dedicated "rack mount" provides a clean location for incorporating integrated lighting into the frame.
The mere thought of building an electric bike for the Oregon Manifest sparked immediate debate and disagreement between all members of our team. While some debated whether an e-bike's extra speed might be unfair, others resented the additional weight and doubted the utility—and more than one of us was convinced that electric bikes were simply destined to be hopelessly lame. We attempted to settle the matter by making a trip to a local retailer of electric bikes, where we test rode close to a dozen different commercial e-bikes. The result was disappointing—not a single bike felt like something we'd ever hope to own. The takeaway seemed to be that commercial electric bikes are split between either monstrously heavy, over-powered mini-motorcycles, or flimsy folding models more akin to a folding scooter than an actual bicycle. The collage of pictures shows some of the bikes we tried.
We found common flaws to be a baffling array of unnecessary instrumentation strapped to the handlebars, clumsily executed fist-fulls of wire, confusing controls, oversized, boxy batteries and bargain-basement components (despite the $1000+ price tags on most of these bikes). Shortcomings aside, though, there's something undeniably fun about the feeling of riding a bicycle with a motor. Going fast is fun—especially when it's half the work. Just check out the grin on the face of Kyle Doerksen (top right picture), electric vehicle wizard and the newest member of IDEO's Oregon Manifest team.
At the brink of despair over the prospects for a well-executed e-bike, Purin lifted our spirits when he brought in his latest project bike, nothing more than a clean, simple, small electric motor fitted to a nicely built vintage single speed.
Purin's bike is a ton of fun, and it gave us hope that with some state-of-the-art batteries, clever frame design, attention-to-detail and self-restraint, we'd be able to design a modest e-bike that breaks new ground in terms of ride quality, desirability and aesthetic.
More than just the rush of an electric tailwind, we think that an e-bike really does address a number of the design principles we identified early in the Manifest. Hills become less intimidating, distances diminish, morning-time commutes become less sweaty, and integrated lighting becomes simpler thanks to the battery. Perhaps most importantly, an electric motor can help lessen the weight of loads and make a cargo-carrying bike feel nimbler. We believe the marriage of modern motor technology with vintage cargo design to lighten your load, however big it may be, will make for a very exciting bicycle.
Design and prototyping is in full swing, with frame layout, component selection, mechanical design, and electrical engineering all progressing in parallel. We've started with the sacrificial mule in the photo above, which we plan to render unrecognizable as we weld, braze, tape and strap various embellishments and accessories to its frame in the process of testing out new ideas. Check out various shots of the team finalizing the design with Paul, prototyping, and hacking—and wish us luck for a busy month!
Room for improvement: The battery that came with the off the shelf e-bike kit that we bought weighed an impressive 11 pounds...a depressingly large load to add to any bicycle.
Better: The advanced lithium iron phosphate pack that we substituted into our prototype e-bike weighed in at a svelte 1.1 pounds.
Trying out placement options for a battery pack on one of Paul's frames. A custom-designed battery pack allows more options for concealing the batteries than off-the-shelf kits.
3D design tools are a complement to Paul's time-tested pen-and-paper methods, and allow us to rapidly iterate on frame geometry, even when we're not gathered around the same table.
The drafting table in the center of Paul's shop was hijacked for the evening when our team descended on Santa Cruz to sketch ideas for our final design. We continued the sketching session on napkins at the nearby Bonny Doon winery later that evening.